Body Image Income

Body image is a constant topic of conversation these days. From those who undergo surgeries to look like the real-life Barbie and Ken to those who consider building genetically-modified “designer babies”, there’s always a new way to change your looks. And according to a new study published in the influential BMJ medical journal, image-obsessed individuals may not be pure narcissists — they may, in fact, have a point.

Scientists at the University of Exeter have found a link between income and height in males, and weight in females. Essentially, short males and overweight females are more likely to earn less money, live in a worse area, have a lower level of education, and have a lower-level job.

The study pooled genetic data from 120,000 people in the UK Biobank between ages 40 and 70. The results were clear: men who were three inches shorter than the average, and women who were around 14 pounds heavier than average (in both cases, due to simple genetics) both had incomes about $2,100 lower than their taller, skinnier peers.

“Although we knew there was a strong association, most people assumed that shorter height and higher BMI were a consequence of poorer nutrition and chances in life,” Tim Frayling, the professor who oversaw the study at Exeter Medical School, wrote. “Now we have shown that there is an effect in the other direction as well – shorter height and higher BMI can actually lead to lower income and other lifestyle measures.”

Previous studies show similar results: A third of Fortune 500 CEOs are taller than 6’3″, and a University of Florida study found that taller people earn more per inch.

“Because we used genetics and 120,000 people,” Dr. Jessica Tyrrell, lead author of the new Exeter study, said, “this is the strongest evidence to date that there’s something about being shorter as a man and having a higher BMI as a woman that leads to being less well-off financially.”

As with all studies, there are caveats. For one, the range of participants don’t necessarily reflect the population at large — people in the UK Biobank, for example, have a higher education than average. Secondly, results may be passed down in what is known as the “dynastic effect.” The dynastic effect suggests that people who inherited the genes to make them short and fat also inherited a lower socioeconomic class.

Still, the researchers may be onto something that helps explain our image-obsessed culture.

“Is this down to factors such as low self-esteem or depression, or is it more to do with discrimination?” Frayling asked. “In a world where we are obsessed with body image, are employers biased? That would be bad both for the individuals involved and for society.”

Nickolaus Hines
Nickolaus Hines is a freelance writer in New York City. He graduated from Auburn University, and his recent bylines can be found at Men's Journal, Inverse, and Grape Collective.
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